Located in the deep south of Chile’s Patagonia region, Torres del Paine National Park is known worldwide for its outstanding trekking and tramping wilderness. Majestic mountains, towering cliffs, glaciers, drop-dead-gorgeous lakes and stunning flora. That’s just to name a few. It truly is one incredible part of the world.
Visiting Torres del Paine in late November gave us weather that wasn’t too hot or too cold, it gave us hours of warm sunshine with occasional light spits of rain – and none of the notorious high winds we kept hearing about. You can experience weather extremes here at any time of the year, so it’s best to be prepared for them. October to March (spring and summer) are considered the best times to go, whereas April is winter and comes with its own icy challenges.
Most people tend to do the W from west to east, but due to the way we booked our campsites and refugio, we ended up going east to west. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it, so just go with whatever you feel.
As of 15 October 2016, it became mandatory to book paid and free campsites and shelters before entering the park. Also, if staying in a refugio, a passport is required or just your passport number if camping.
So, the absolute first thing that needs to be done before you get to Puerto Natales, or as soon as you get there, is to book your camps and or refugios. Figure out what you want to do, where you want to stay and get booking!
There are three companies that control the campsites and refugios in the park – Fantástico Sur (east side of the W), Vértice Patagonia (west side of the W & top of O) and CONAF. Tap on the links to see maps, locations and names of each campsite and refugio. You can book online with Fantástico Sur, Vértice and CONAF by tapping the names.
Our approach was to make all the bookings on our second day in Puerto Natales. Nothing like leaving it to the last minute, right? Probably not the best approach.
We started at the Fantástico Sur office, securing a site at Camp Torres and Refugio Los Cuernos. We then queued for over an hour at the Vértice Patagonia office on the other side of town and booked as far as Camp Paine Grande. Sadly Camp Grey was booked up and we couldn’t get in. Bummer. Looks like the W was looking more like an N, for us.
Life would be so much easier if there was a third party website where you could make all the bookings in one place, but no, they like to make it difficult for us all.
Your hotel or hostel in Puerto Natales will probably store your luggage for free while you do the trek. Just ask.
Finally, transport needs to be booked to get you to the park. We did this with Fantástico Sur, a bus that costs 15,000 pesos, leaving from the main bus station in Puerto Natales.
Once at the Torres del Paine NP entrance, you pay the entrance fee of 2,100 pesos, grab a park map and watch a short video about park rules. If you’re doing the W from east to west, all luggage needs to be removed from the bus before paying the entrance. You’ll be catching a transfer bus (3,000 pesos) to take you to Torres. If you’re doing the W from west to east, leave your luggage on the bus as you’ll be getting back onto it to transfer to the catamaran, which costs 18,000 pesos.
Now, the start of the W trek, if going from east to west. Once you arrive at Torres Camp and Refugio, you need to check in and register. We were camping here, so rather than set up our tent and hit the trail, we stored our backpacks at the refugio (no cost) and were on our way with a small daypack.
The trail from Torres Camp & Refugio to the Torres del Paine viewpoint takes about 9 hours return, or so they say. We did it in 7 hours, with rest stops along the way and 45 minutes at the viewpoint. Most of it is uphill, and to be honest, this was the hardest part of the trek. Much of it is in the open, so if the sun’s blaring, the heat really can knock it out of you.
There are a couple of water crossings (wooden bridges), plus El Chileno Camp & Refugio where you can grab a drink, snacks or take a breather. From there, the track mainly heads through beautiful forests and glacial streams and waterfalls – perfect spots to fill up the water bottle and drink in that icy, crystal clear water.
For some very useful, and free, information on the W and O treks, head to Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales for their daily 3pm chat. Find them at Manuel Baquedano 719.
Prior to getting to the Torres del Paine lookout, you need to climb the enormous rockfall; zig-zagging up a 45º hill and around boulders for almost an hour. In the sun it’s an absolute killer, although if it was overcast it’d be a walk in the park. Just kidding! This one really took it out of me.
All the pain, sweat and burning lungs are rewarded as soon as you reach the top and cop an eyeful of this. Three enormous fingers of granite reaching skyward and that turquoise lagoon in front of it. Some people don’t even get to see it, due to complete cloud coverage, but there was barely a cloud to be seen on this particular afternoon.
This is where you take a load off, sit by the water and breath it all in. As for that water, it’s ice cold and will make your feet go numb within seconds – although it sure is refreshing. Keep your eyes open for foxes wandering about the boulders – they’re harmless and used to people, but I’m sure they’d take a nip if you got in their way.
Heading back down the mountain from Torres del Paine is way easier than going up, but despite the ease, the last thing we wanted to do was set up camp as soon as we got to the site. Maybe setting up before heading up the mountain would have been wiser.
A nice, hot shower at the free facilities onsite, a glass or two of vino, then a quick dinner of bean & chorizo stew. So nice not to be wearing hiking boots – just flip-flops or barefoot on the grass.
Come the morning, it was bland muesli and an espresso to fuel us up for the day ahead. Probably should have grabbed a banana or two to put in with the muesli. And how about that espresso pump? A very nice little ebay purchase that satisfies the caffeine addiction way better than that instant stuff.
Waking up to an overcast sky and very light spits of rain was a welcomed relief, especially after hiking in the hot sun the day before. This was when the hiking became a bit more serious as we’d be walking with everything strapped to our bodies. Full backpack, tent and daypack – all weighing us down like nothing else for the five hours it took to walk to Los Cuernos.
There’s no wifi anywhere in the park, so your phone will only be good for pics, vids and maps. Don’t even think about bringing a laptop, unless you want the extra weight.
Snowcapped mountain on one side, wide valley on the other, and a gradually ascending rocky trail that meanders through a patchwork of low scrub and over bubbling streams.
The trail descends towards the sprawling Lago Nordenskjöld, and the patchwork of greens suddenly becomes peppered with red, purple, pink, yellow and white. It’s wildflower season in November, and this stretch of landscape between the tiny Laguna Inge and Los Cuernos is completely filled with bright red notro, purple sweet peas, campanilla, capachito and flowering calafate. Plus many others.
I was hoping to see the edible calafate berries, but we were a bit early in the season for those – the thorny shrubs were instead covered in bright yellowy-orange blooms. The varieties of wildflowers in Patagonia is astounding, and my inner botanist went a bit mad trying to photograph them all. I got most, but there were many more I missed.
There are many vantage points along this section of trail to perch on a hill or boulder and taking the utter beauty that surrounds you. Quite a few steep hills to schlepp up, too.
After about 5 hours you’re greeted with the sight of Refugio Los Cuernos, tucked amongst the trees and boulders on the side of a mountain that plunges into Lago Nordenskjöld. Had I not been faffing around looking at the flora, we probably would have got to Los Cuernos in 4½ hours.
There are three types of accommodation here, all very close to one another – the campsite, the refugio and the cabañas. We were staying in the refugio – where you share a room with seven others. Bunk beds, pillows, cosy room, and that one pesky snorer you want to snuff with a pillow. You may want to pack earplugs, of if you’re the snorer, please pack your anti-snoring device? There were no campsites available when we booked, otherwise we would have done that. Peace and quiet, you know?
Here at Los Cuernos there’s a restaurant, a small shop, bar and shared bathrooms. You can reserve a place for set meals, but if you’re staying in the dorm but only want camping food, there’s the problem of not being allowed to light your stove to prepare a meal. There’s no access to the kitchen, either.
Lucky for us we had a pack of freeze-dried curry that only required boiling water – something we helped ourselves to from the thermoses in the restaurant.
An early breakfast and coffee and we hit the trail at 7am, straddling the lake again for three hours into dense woodland, which is home to Camp Italiano. This is a free campsite in the forest with sheltered cooking area and toilets, sans the shower facilities. It may be free, but you still need to book in advance. Book or contact here.
Some choose to stay at Italiano, but we dumped our backpacks at the little office and trekked up French Valley (2 hr return walk) to see the glacier and viewpoint. Looking back down the valley is one beautiful sight.
From the French Valley, you have no choice but to backtrack to Camp Italiano, grab your backpack and carry on heading west towards Campamento Paine Grande. Or east, if you’re heading in the other direction.
The landscape becomes a lot more open, offering vistas up and down the lakeshore which is flanked by striking mountains. It’s here that visitors are reminded of the parks very strict ‘no fire’ policy. Enormous sections of the national park have been damaged by a variety of twits using gas stoves, lighting bonfires and burning toilet paper – all causing catastrophic damage to slow-growing vegetation that will take hundreds of years to regenerate.
Quit with the fires, people, and that also means smoking cigarettes. Smokers, you can only use designated areas at camps and refugios.
Arriving into Paine Grande – camp and lodge – was a breath of fresh air after trekking in the full sun for a good chunk of the day. The lodge looks like something from a ski resort, boldly standing out in the rugged, tree-less landscape by Lake Pehoé.
We were here to camp, not lodge, so it was a swift tent set-up in the sprawling, very exposed site that’s devoid of trees. Can’t complain about the view, though. The campsite has a spacious dining room and kitchen, toilet and shower block; centrally positioned and connected to the lodge via wooden walkways. The hot water for the shower is only available at certain times.
Over at the lodge there’s a large restaurant, upstairs cafe and small convenience store that’s stocked with the likes of cookies, chocolates, chips, cold beer and many other vitals.
Our final dinner in the park was some delicious cheese tortellini with chorizo & tomato sauce, tricked up with torn dandelion leaves I foraged from the edge of the campsite. Washed down with cans of chilled beer from the grocer, it was one mighty fine dinner. All that was missing was some crusty bread doused in virgin olive oil.
And how’s that view from our tent?
Anyone continuing on to Camp Grey from Paine Grande would be heading out early the next day, but for us, we grabbed the first catamaran back to the other side of Lake Pehoé, then a bus all the way back to Puerto Natales.
Small adventure over and out.
Where to rent gear in Puerto Natales for the W Trek.
There are plenty of places in Puerto Natales to rent your camping gear – from tents to clothes to backpacks. We rented ours from Patagonia Adventure Hostel, located on the main plaza in town. Here’s a breakdown of what was rented, for two of us, including rental costs (in pesos) per day.
1 x Ferrino Manasku 2 person tent $6000
2 x Ferrino 2ºC 1.4kg sleeping bags $3000 each
2 x Mammut inflatable mattresses $3000 each
1 x stove (trivet) $2000
1 x two person cook set (pots + cutlery + plates + cups) $2000
2 x backpacks $3000 each
2 x waterproof trousers $2500 each
1 x trekking boots $3000
~ Patagonia Adventure Hostel, Tomás Rogers 179
What I packed.
Passport (needed for park entry and refugio registration)
Two pairs socks – one for trekking, one for night time
Two pairs underwear
Thermal long johns & thermal t-shirt
Long thin pants, to trek in
Thin fleece jumper
Beenie & gloves
Sunglasses & sun screen
Small micro fibre towel
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Flip-flops (to wear around camp)
Food supplies for the W Trek.
Working out how much food to take on the trek isn’t too much of a challenge. It’s as simple as calculating what it is you want to eat (within reason) for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in-between.
The main thing is that you have enough for each meal, per person. Too much food and the weight of your pack increases, too little food and you’ll be tired, hangry and forking out cash at the refugios.
This is how the food and supplies were looking, mainly for myself; but a few things in there were shared with one other person.
1 x bag of toasted muesli
1 x small bag chia (to put into the muesli, helps keep you regular)
2 x packets milk powder
To make the milk you simply use water from a stream or taps from the campsites. The first time I made it the muesli was so crunchy that it took half an hour to eat. I then learned to make the muesli the night before and let it sit overnight to soften. Easier to chew and swallow. A bit of sugar or banana would have helped, but I guess it comes down to what brand of muesli you buy. This one was as coarse as cement mix.
I haven’t shown tea or coffee. We’re coffee drinkers and the obvious choice would be a jar of instant. Not a great fan of this stuff so we used the coffee pump with ground espresso. You probably saw it in one of the pics above.
1 x packet tortilla wraps (20 per pack)
1 x chorizo
1 x avocado
1 x tin sardines
1 x tin spam-type stuff
2 x tins paté
To be honest, lunch was my least favourite. It probably comes down to choice of fillings, but I always just craved something other than floppy tortillas smeared and rolled with incredibly salty paté, processed spam-type dog food and bruised avocado. Maybe some cheese would have made things a little more bearable.
The chorizo was quite nice, though, half of which went into one of the dinners.
About 500g mixed nuts & dried fruits
1 x jar peanut butter
1 x chocolate pound cake
1 x bar dark chocolate
These were easy. The dried fruits and nuts we bought were mixed together then rationed into small, individual zip-lock bags for each day. Peanut butter was there to dunk into whenever you want, the cake was rationed for dessert each night and the chocolate, well, you can figure that out.
1 x pack cheese tortellini, dried (enough for two)
1 x pack pasta sauce
2 x sachets grated parmesan
2 x packs freeze-dried curry with rice (each pack for two)
1 x tub bean & meat stew (absolutely loved this, just heat and eat)
1 x small carton chickpeas
1 x small carton sweetcorn
2 x tins tuna
Most of the food weight came from the dinner items, so we ate the heaviest the first night to reduce the carrying weight, and so on the following night.
The parmesan is nice over the pasta, if I can state the obvious, but it’s also a good seasoning for other dishes due to its salt content.
The packs of freeze-dried curries are on the expensive side, but they’re an ok meal idea due to being so lightweight. Things like the chickpeas can bulk it up, as well.
My favourites were the bean & meat stew and the tortellini, which I tricked up with some torn dandelion leaves I foraged near the campsite. Fresh greens, you know!
The tuna ended up being uneaten and given away.
The main thing you’ll be drinking during the trek is water. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no need to bring anything other than the 500-600ml bottle you started out with. When that slowly empties you simply top it up every time you cross a stream. Nothing like fresh, ice cold glacial water.
If bland water’s not your thing, then grab several packets of powdered cordial to mix into it. The extra sugar content will put more of a bounce in your step, too.
Now, they say that drinking booze is a no-no. Dehydration, you know? But let’s be realistic here, so to hell with that. I bought a 1 litre box of red wine and had some each night with dinner. It got decanted into a plastic bottle to keep it safe and sound. Nobody wants vino exploding in their backpack, do they? I was more than happy to carry this little bit of extra weight.
1 x small gas canister & screw-in trivet
1 x lidded saucepan
1 x shallow bowl
1 x combined fork-knife-spoon (purchased at Wild Hostel)
1 x scourer sponge
1 x lighter
1 x multi-purpose knife
1 x torch
1 x roll garbage bags (to pack clothes & keep them dry)
1 x roll foil
1 x roll toilet paper
Most of these items are essentials. The canister, trivet, saucepan & lighter for cooking. It isn’t all that necessary to have a saucepan and frying pan, unless you want to carry one extra thing. We could have done with a slightly larger saucepan, but this one was ok.
We never used the scourer sponge as cleaning with fingers sufficed, plus the Paine Grande kitchen had one or two communal ones.
Where to grab food supplies in Puerto Natales.
The town has one major supermarket – Unimarc – which is conveniently located downtown. This was the first place we walked into and were pretty much disappointed in the range of stuff they carry.
Instead, head to the smaller independent grocers, grab most of your supplies there and head to Unimarc as a last resort.
Don Bosco Supermarket was where we got the bulk of our food supplies. It’s relatively small, but the range is far superior to crappy Unimarc. Tinned goods, packets of soup, rice, pulses, powdered drinks, muesli, garbage bags, toilet paper, tortillas, chorizo etc.
Calle Manuel Baquedano 358.
Saloman is an outdoor store that has a very small range of freeze-dried meals behind its counter – curries, lasagne etc. Each pack is enough for two, so you simply add boiling water, seal and let it sit for 20 minutes to rehydrate. They’re not cheap, but they’re convenient.
Corner of Manuel Bulnes & Manuel Baquedano.
Across the road from Don Bosco is Fruiteria La Sureña, a tiny fruit & veg shop that also has a small selection of dried fruits and nuts you can buy per scoop. The fresh fruit here always seemed old and sad, however.
Calle Baquedano 377.
There’s an unnamed hole-in-the-wall convenience store (pictured below) down the road that also sells dried fruits and nuts per scoop.
Calle Baquedano between Esmerelda & Bernado.
For the best range of camping snackage, head to Frutos Secos (pictured below). It’s a relatively small shop, but it’s jam-packed with dried fruits, berries, nuts, seeds and grains. They have fresh eggs, freeze-dried meals and a few tinned goods, as well. This is where we stocked up on the ingredients for our snacks. They’ll even let you try things before buying. The prices aren’t el-cheapo.